A Review Of In Memoriam Of A Modest Shame
Book: In Memoriam of a Modest Shame
Publisher: Baron’s Cafe
Author: Nnaemeka Oruh
Reviewer: Rasaq Malik Gbolahan
Pages: 87 pages
First published: 2018
IN MEMORIAM OF A POET’S HOMELAND: A REVIEW OF IN MEMORIAM OF A MODEST SHAME BY NNAEMEKA ORUH
In a country steeped in the perpertual display of ineffectiveness from the leaders and those who are dubiously elected to represent the interests of the masses, the thematic preoccupations that saturate the works of writers, who are trying to correct the wrongs through writing, are indisputably heartbreaking and elegiac.
In a season and time like the contemporary Nigeria, the rate at which writers wield their pens against the governement is effectively pronounced in their works. In war-ravaged states like the northern parts of the country, the presence of grim experiences and sad tales reminds the masses about the insecurity they wake up to see daily. Thus, the angry and thunderous voices of the generation of poets that witnessed the literary evolution of Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Olu Oguibe, Afam Akeh, Remi Raji, Jumoke Verissimo etc. reflect in the works of the emerging nigerian writers. The rise of these new and refreshing poets in the age of the media has proved to us the passage of poetic inheritance laden with anger and political consciousness imbued in the voices of their masters.
In African poetry, this discovery is not alien to us. However, it is pertinent to interrogate the incessant marriage between a writer and his society. Can we say a writer can’t operate without dwelling in the abyss of his society? Is it possible to be a writer without capturing the ills and vices in a society you inhabit? In Odia Ofeimun’s critically acclaimed poetry collection titled “The Poet Lied,” the poet delves into the political turbulence and bloody years in Nigerian history. The poet’s poem “How can I sing?” is a revolutionary anthem. This anthem, written in a time when the heat of military junta withered the frail hope of the masses, is replicated in the themes of the emerging poets.
In “In Memoriam of a Modest Shame” by Nnaemeka Oruh, the overwhelming presence of angst and outright dissaproval of societal wrongs engineered by the leaders is noticeable in the verses. Semantically, the title of the collection offers both the death, the funeral, and remembrance of a shame that appears to be fair and manageable. One would expect that the burial of this ‘shame’ would ignite a light of hope and assurance of a utopian country for the masses. Unfortunately, the death of this shame paves a path for shameless political thieves and opportunists in the poet’s country of birth. This aspect of historical allusion invokes the spirit of the Nigerian past, especially the dashed hopes of the masses after independence in 1960. Before independence, the political slavery and cultural conflict that destabilized African countries were devastating. However, since 1960, the nigerian situation hasn’t changed. The baton of leadership continues to rotate among people whose visions for the country are blurred by their greediness and dexterity at milking the country dry. In the first part of Nnaemeke Oruh’s “In Memoriam of a Modest Shame” titled “In the Beginning,” the poet writes:
“No glorious beginning,
middle packed with tears and yearning;
unfulfilled dreams, broken hearts,
empty stomachs, fallen comrades.
This land is sick. It has engulfed us
like rats, leaving just skeletons.
Shadows of our pre-being, we became,
trudging along, in modest shame.
The denouement holds no hopes,
mooring on a brand new day, a dead end.
The sun will not rise again. No hope, no
The beginning foreshadowed the end.” (2)
Carrying a pessimistic note, this poem begins, sadly, as a befitting elegy for the poet’s homeland. The beginning is painted as ‘inglorious’ and the middle is ‘packed with tears and yearning’. Critically engaging this poem, one comes to realize the manifold yearnings of the masses after Independence and the recurring trauma of languishing in abject poverty when there are signs of comfort and happiness on the faces of politicians. The ‘fallen comrades’ in the first stanza refer to the countless activists haunted down by the rabid dogs of injustice and death unleashed by the power-drunken politicians paddling the canoe of governance in Nigeria.
Shifting the focus to the second stanza of this poem, there is a reincarnation of a metaphorical leaning that dominates “Ambush” by Gbemisola Adeoti. Intertextually, both poems address homeland as a land riddled with trepidation and turbulence. Adeoti’s /this land is a giant whale/ and Nnaemeka’s /this land is sick/ draw their source from the mind-troubling and fear-laden happenings in Nigeria. As a chronicler of events in his society, one of a poet’s duties is to portray his society the way it is to the world. With a voice whose tone is declarative and unsparing, Nnaemeka’s depiction of Nigeria where /the sun will not rise again/ signals a bad end to a country where nothing works and lasts.
In another poem titled “Chaos,” the poet-persona presents the hypocrisy and confusion that dominates the religious sphere in his country. The continuous increase of the number of religious houses does not proffer solutions to the myriad of problems hindering the progress of the country; instead, it inflates the problems. The poet writes:
society in confusion,
chasing diverse gods,
Allah akbar here;
killing one another here.” (10)
In a country that is familiar with religious wars and clashes, this excerpt from the poem accentuates the truth and exposes it further to the world. In a society inhabited by religious warriors and extremists, daily disputes arising from religious differences are experienced. The ‘unsure beings’ suggest religious confusionists who continue to wax stronger in deceiving people by leading them astray. These ‘unsure beings’ also engage in /killing one another here/ because they lack the understanding of their religions due to their desperate attempt at dwelling in the materialistic aspect of the world. In some parts of Nigeria, religious sects engage in heated debates and arguments that sometimes lead to bloodshed. In some churches and mosques, the religious leaders have successfully turned themselves into custodians of miracles and mysteries. In the North, the rise of the Boko Haram sect has caused mass killings and unrest. It has also stirred a debate around Islam and what Boko Haram members represent. This tells the reader about how the poet explores his society in writing his poems.
Lending a voice to George Herbert’s “The Pulley,” Nnemeka’s poem titled “Tragedy of Man” captures man’s restlessness in a world laden with his impatient desire to acquire everything. Man strives from morning till dusk to amass wealth, but he finds no peace after achieving everything. In his mission to create pitiful imageries of the futility of life, the poet describes man as someone /Conceived in darkness/mother lying on tattered mats/father sweating it out between thighs/in a hut where the room floods/when the heavens weep(18).”
This excerpt from the poem describes the making of man in a poverty-ridden place. This aspect of man’s life should have served as a cursor of remembrance for him to hold the world lightly; sadly, man pursues wealth but finds no bliss. In George Herbert’s “The Pulley,” the poet-persona describes the beginning of man as someone endowed with many things from God, but God’s refusal to grant man rest of mind affects him hugely. God knows that if he did, man would never remember Him. Describing man as a product of an impoverished society and something akin to slums/IDP camps for war-victims, the poet-persona writes:
“Mucus rains from the nostrils of children,
protruding belly fed fat with hunger,
flies competing violently
to lick the mucus from the nostrils.
Women with bodies decorated with veins,
have their fingers worn rough from
scratching arid lands for food
and with half-fed stomachs, sleep weary each night.” (17)
Through the careful deployment of haunting imageries, Nnaemeka unveils a retrogressive society populated by starved children and weary women. This excerpt from the poem can be likened to Niyi Osundare’s description of Ajegunle in his poetry collection titled “Moonsongs.” Nnemeka paints vividly the unpleasant sight of street urchins, juveniles, destitute persons, and orphans subjected to severe ache by their society. Till the end of this poem, man’s growth and downfall is determined by his cravings. In another poetry collection titled “Death Ward,” the grim reality of death due to the recklessness of drivers on the roads cum the lackadaisical and unprofessional actions of doctors in Nigerian hospitals is explored. This poem reminds the reader of another poem titled “A Taxi Driver On His Death,” by Timothy Wangusa. In Nigeria, avoidable deaths are vulnerable to unavoidability disguised in form of road accidents, poverty, bad government, etc. The poet-persona writes:
“The cloth is soaked by
blood flowing from
the mutilated body of,
a man, reduced to a bleeding piece of earth,
by the actions of reckless drivers.” (24)
On the roads, these drivers, under the influence of alcohol, swerve recklessly and risk the lives of their passengers. Daily deaths that occur from reckless drivers are some of the things that render this land hopeless and forlorn. In hospitals, accident victims are seen as mere humans by the nurses and doctors. Sometimes, hospitals embark on a protracted strike due to non-payment of salaries by the government. Discussing the reality of the death staring at an accident victim in a country like Nigeria, Nnaemeka’s portrayal of the doctor’s deafness to the cry of rescue due to his sexual orgy with /a nurse in skimpy gown/ is timely. He writes:
The god does not hear,
he is busy fondling the breast of
a nurse in skimpy gown.” (24).
The doctor’s sexual orgy with a nurse denies him the chance to treat the accident victim and this leads to the accident victim’s death. In other poetic chapters that open with subtitles like “Interlude,” “Can hope part the curtain of darkness,” “…and usher in a new dawn?” the poet introduces the reader to his poetic offerings that discuss other thematic preoccupations such as cultural alienation/differences in “American Lady” (68), hope in “Just a Day” (73), freedom/hope in “Revolution” (81), etc. In “Revolution,” the poet’s voice is optimistic and assuring about the future. He admits that, even though today is hazy and unrealistic, the arrival of tomorrow promises a deluge of hope and light. Today, /our bodies are cut into bits/ in the struggle for liberty/(81). The tomorrow he envisages is a tomorrow where /our spirits shall dance ecstatically/the dance of deities adored generally/by the free world/we bought with our blood/.
Nnaemeka’s debut is timely. It is tasty and serious in its relentless criticism of his homeland and the leaders that anchor its ship. He never forgets to address the multifarious problems that impede his country’s progress to the promised land. However, the poet’s use of poetic diction should be improved in subsequent publications.
Rasaq Malik is a graduate of the University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria. His poems have appeared in Nigerian Newspapers and online literary journals such as ONE, Sentinel, Saraba, Michigan Quarterly Review, Poet Lore, Spillway etc.